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The happiest grad students May 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, science, Uncategorized.

Having done grad work in both science and engineering, I have to come out and make an observation that I doubt people will be happy to hear.  This observation has given me pause because it pertains to grad student contentment.

The happiest and many of the most productive grad students were

(drumroll please)

Employed elsewhere.

They were going to school as a way to get further in their job.  Their jobs often paid for their classes, rather than an RA or TA.  And if they were overwhelmed with it all, they didn’t fail to leave because they weren’t dependent on grad school for a living.

In engineering, it’s not uncommon to work on a technical masters or MBA outside of work.  Many engineering programs even have special arrangements with various companies to enable their employees to participate in this sort of program.  This is, of course, not all of engineering grad students, but it’s a not insignificant chunk of them.

I contrast this with the way I’ve seen in science and other parts of engineering: the student is usually in the employ of their advisor, and this can make for a rocky relationship.  Advisors at universities don’t really go through much management training, don’t seem to have the same sorts of rules that many companies have, may not have a way to deal (effectively) with advisor difficulties.  Most workplaces do have these sorts of rules in place, if nothing else than to prevent the employer with being sued for harassment or the like.

The person who supervises you, in most places in industry, has no ability to control your paycheck.  If they want to fire you, they have to go through a formal process, in most cases.  In grad school, rules about this are very vague and can change from place to place.  It can leave a student with a sense of fear and lack of control over their situation.  They may feel like they have no rights.

In a job, your objectives and expectations are often more clearly defined.  In grad school, advisors can string a person on for years.

I’m not saying that grad school is all bad, nor are all advisors.  However, I think part of the fact that so many people find grad school miserable is because the lack of clarity about the situation and lack of rights afforded to students.  Rules may be put in place that are left intentionally vague for the purpose of flexibility…but this lack of clarity can also be used by an advisor to threaten or bully a student, who is left feeling like they can do nothing about the situation.

At my grad institution, there is an attempt to form some sort of student union.  I know one big issue is pay.  While I am sympathetic to the problem, I also understand that it’s hard to find extra pay when the university system is already dealing with budgetary shortfalls.  On the other hand, I think a union that focuses on developing clear guidelines for students which require more professional behavior from faculty, explicitly written, would be a huge boon to grad students.  Such a system might make grad school a bit more happy place, at least for the students.



1. NJS - May 25, 2011

You are a good person to talk about this. I’ve thought about it before, but never had the perspective to compare the two situations.

BTW, post is linked: Faraday’s Cage: The happiest grad students.


mareserinitatis - May 25, 2011

Thanks. I’ve been batting it around for a while and wasn’t sure if I should say something. I also feel like how I expressed it may be an oversimplification or generalization…but I’ve noticed it’s true more often than not.


NJS - May 25, 2011

Every rule has exceptions. (almost 😉 )


2. FrauTech - May 25, 2011

Great post. Wanted to pipe up that most managers in industry also don’t receive management training and companies don’t usually have effective means of dealing with difficulties between you and your boss. The difference I think is that sometimes you can manage a transfer within the company, or find another boss at another company without taking a hit to your career. Given how tied a grad student is to a single advisor over such a long period of time this really screws over the grad student. So it’s not that private industry is “better” but that it’s optimized for flexibility and movement in a way academia isn’t.


mareserinitatis - May 26, 2011

I think that’s it: even if you don’t work for a company with those types of protections, you have more options for employment. And, in the worst case scenario, you have legal recourse.


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